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The Mental Illness Defense

September 23, 2016 | Posted In Criminal Law

When a defendant is accused of a crime, he usually pleads guilty or not guilty after making his plea decision with the help of a New Jersey criminal defense attorney. In some cases, however, there is another plea that is appropriate. A defendant may admit to committing the offense that he is accused of, but may argue that he should not actually be found guilty because he was insane or mentally ill at the time of his actions.

Many people have misconceptions about what an insanity plea will actually do for them within the criminal justice system.  Defendants may believe that they can essentially get away with the crime if they were not mentally sound at the time. The reality, however, as NPR points out, is that a plea of mental illness does not necessarily mean a harsh sentence won't be imposed upon a defendant.

Guilty But Mentally Ill Can Still Result in a Harsh Sentence

NPR explains that there are different standards throughout the United States used to determine if a defendant should not be held responsible for crimes as a result of a mental problem at the time the acts were committed.

Some jurisdictions only allow an insanity defense and some have adopted the M'Naughten rule. This is the narrowest definition of insanity in which insanity is defined only to include situations where defendants didn't understand that their actions were wrongful. 

New Jersey uses the M'Naughten rule in cases where a defendant has pled insanity. The requirements for an insanity defense can be found in Title 2C, Section 2C:4-1 of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice. 

When a defendant is actually found to be not guilty by reason of insanity, commitment to a psychiatric hospital results -- often for a long period of time. John Hinkley Jr., for example, spent 35 years in a psychiatric hospital for trying to assassinate Ronald Reagan before being released.

Some states offer another option -- guilty but mentally ill, which is essentially a compromise verdict that allows jurors to acknowledge guilt but recognize that mental illness played a role. This verdict was introduced in many states throughout the U.S. after John Hinkley Jr. was found not guilty due to insanity after the assassination attempt.

Regardless of the specific definition, NPR reports most legal and psychiatric experts indicate that, “jurors generally have trouble attributing violent crimes to mental illness, especially if a defendant does not meet jurors' preconceived notions of what a mentally ill person looks like.”  This makes an insanity verdict hard to achieve. Even when defendants do find someone guilty but mentally ill, the defendant tends to receive the same penalties as someone who is simply found guilty.

If you are accused of a crime and you believe your best defense is to argue mental illness or insanity, you need to make sure you understand the implications of your plea and that you make smart choices. A skilled criminal defense attorney with Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, P.A. can provide you with help in determining what course of action is best for your situation. 

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